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For coal, pessimism is new reality

Revitalization of America’s coal industry was a notable topic in the 2016 presidential election campaign — certainly for the Southern Alleghenies area and Pennsylvania’s other coal-producing regions – and it also might be an issue during this year’s campaign.

If so, the industry will be in focus for a different reason. The promised revitalization

hasn’t come about; coal’s plight has worsened, not improved.

That situation isn’t likely to change in the foreseeable future, unless big new demand for the fossil fuel can be generated on the international front. And there is no evidence of such a surge coming about.

Judging from developments in the industry last year, domestic demand seems destined to decrease markedly. Consider some of the pessimistic coal news of last year, despite the Trump administration’s acceleration of efforts to weaken Obama-era rules perceived as having hurt the industry.

On Oct. 30, the Wall Street Journal reported on Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp.’s decision to file for Chapter 11 protection — what the Journal described as “a stark example of coal’s shrinking role in the U.S. energy sector.”

The Journal went on to say that “the eighth coal producer to collapse into bankruptcy over the past year, Murray Energy is the latest to fall victim to diminished demand for coal and competition from cheaper fuels.”

The U.S. continues to turn to abundant natural gas and other cheaper, less-polluting renewable energy sources; across the nation, coal-fired power plants are being retired.

Meanwhile, homeowners across the nation aren’t scrambling to install coal furnaces when cleaner, less-work-demanding heat sources are available. For coal revitalization, then, political promises have been and will be empty, although coal-producing areas like hearing them.

For coal, pessimism is the reality of the times.

It is important to recall that 2019’s coal company bankruptcies were preceded in 2015 and 2016 by a larger wave of Chapter 11 filings. As the Journal noted in an Oct. 14 article, some mines were back in Chapter 11 after being purchased in earlier bankruptcies at a discount.

Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas prices hit 20-year lows last June and July.

A Journal headline last year made the point that betting on coal was a path to bankruptcy court, and there have been no significant developments to counter that observation, despite what is happening in Wyoming, which produces nearly half the coal burned by U.S. power plants.

Last month, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, urged his state’s GOP-controlled Legislature to adopt a raft of measures to support coal. However, the governor is facing an uphill battle because most Wyoming coal is used in states where retirement of coal-fired power plants shows no signs of waning.

For Pennsylvania coal miners and voters in general, then, perk up your ears when the word “coal” is voiced on the campaign trail this year and ponder whether what is being said acknowledges reality.

Also, realize the limitations couched within Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s October announcement regarding $8 million in new funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission to help counties affected by job losses in coal mining, coal power plant operations and coal-related supply chain industries. In actuality, that amount is a pittance.

The future for coal here and elsewhere is not bright. That is the unfortunate bottom line.

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